It was a slightly startling experience, after reams and reams of iambic pentameter, to begin reading a novel again this summer. Even more, opening the page to discover sentences like: ‘JJ says we saw him get shanked last night, but really and truly, I didn’t see nothing’.
‘Feral Youth’ is the sixth novel from Polly Courtney, which was first published this June. It was a pleasure to meet Polly, recently: a kind mentor to an aspiring writer. We also had some chat about this new book, and the way she writes. This is a lady who has been in the media, even the news, to discuss some of the issues around her novels, including the London riots, covered in this latest one. In fact, her first novel, ‘Golden Handcuffs’, which is about the grotesque treatment of graduates in City jobs, started as a series of autobiographical anecdotes – until her agent recommended fiction. Until actually meeting one it hadn’t dawned on me, how wonderful it is that (good) novelists are experts…
‘Feral Youth’ follows Alesha, a fifteen-year-old girl from Peckham, South London. Her ‘fam’ is JJ, her boyfriend, with whom she lives, with his nan, until the council decide to move Nan to a care home, since, JJ and Alesha not being registered as living there for their own problematic reasons, she is judged as unable to take care of herself. Forced to find their own accommodation, the two teenagers are hooked into a deeper and more threatening involvement with the Peckham Crew: a full-blown bloody, rough, hierarchical, sexist gang, with guns, and immensely dangerous power, at the centre. And whilst Alesha gets to know the ins and outs of this gang (all too intimately), she encounters her old piano teacher: one grown up on her side, who seeks to help her into more hopeful places, despite Alesha’s inability to see beyond her limitations. Frustrated and revolted at the difficulty on both sides, she has to choose one.
Opening up this book, as a ‘voice’ fanatic, the first thing I wondered was, how, and how well, had Polly managed to write a fifteen-year-old South London teenage girl who doesn’t read or write? Posing the question reminds me that it’s both an artificial, and a gracious, exercise.
In my reading ‘head voice’, I was partaking in the artificial exercise. To start with, it stuck out painfully. I felt like my mum was trying to talk in her ‘down with the kids’ voice. #cringe. But it was me, the reader, making that discomfort, because after not long at all, a few of the accessibly short chapters in, the voice stopped sticking. It became unnoticeable, and spending time with Alesha became effortless and extremely enjoyable. Polly had said to me, she even began to think like Alesha (the protagonist) – I also began to think in Alesha’s voice, with Alesha’s logic, and Alesha’s attitude. ‘Shoplifting by people who’ve been robbed of any chances is, in a way, justice’, I said to a horrified friend. With this absorption, I was surprised at how some critics have called Alesha ‘opinionated’.
‘Opinionated’ is a harsh word, that I would not have used. I’ve even looked it up in the OED to check my point. Sure, meaning #1 is reasonable: ‘having a (specified) opinion’. But most protagonists would be pretty boring without some of that. It’s the connotations of this, that I don’t like: ‘Thinking too highly of, or holding obstinately to, one’s own opinion; conceited; dogmatic’. She’s not that. She does change her opinions. She’s no Jeremy Clarkson when it comes to speaking one’s mind loudly and proudly. Alesha, with her strange artificial voice? Well, she wasn’t asked to come inside this book. It’s all internal – she reports how her life is. What she can’t see past. Even before Miss Merfield enters, she seems to look at her situation and judge sensibly, what are her realistic options. And what does and doesn’t seem fair. She takes a while to adjust to what her teacher tells her – but don’t we all? Pretty reasonable, pretty believable. Within realistic human expectations.
After all, there is much more to see about Alesha. I ‘m not the first to call her ‘loveable’. She becomes a part of us. Miss Merfield’s nagging Alesha and persuading her into these hopeless-seeming job interviews encouraged me to do things that scare me too, as a rather different, privileged, 21-year-old Eng. Lit student!
Chatting with Polly, it was interesting to hear that her books are not easily shelved. There have been many struggles fitting them into a ‘genre’ – social protest books? We supposed it would go along those such as ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, or, more modern, ‘The Help’. After having read ‘Feral Youth’, though, it was hard to think of any other kind of desirable genre. Do I want to be a bourgeois book buyer? Do the arts really encourage those sorts of ‘well-to-do’ things (and even that word is loaded with the idea of patronage and feeling better about oneself), or are they rather a bit of clevermaking titillation?
As ‘clevermaking titillation’, it’s not bad, though. It has its finely orchestrated climaxes. Its peak, it is easy for me to say, is that primely controversial moment, the London riots. Alesha is at her most anxious, poised in a choice between Miss Merfield’s and JJ’s worlds, and here it comes, in energy – here’s a BBM:
‘Dead the endz and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUTE! if you see a fed… SHOOT!’
And this is how the world looks:
‘Clapham’s even more madness than Brixton. First thing I see is this shell of a car, upturned, black and charred – still smoking – in the shape of a Focus. A police car. The sky here is black, like it’s night. Then I see why. A whole row of shops is on fire, the curtain store at the end spewing big orange flames like there’s a roaring dragon inside’.
And what with the flood of messages, of BBMs, the voices all come together into a polyphonic deluge of sound, of people. ‘My phone comes alive in my hands’.
And Alesha? ‘My belly’s doing spins inside me. It’s revenge, that’s what it is. Revenge for what the fedz did to Omar and what they do to people like him every day of the week’.
‘Rye Lane’s like a burnt-out ghost town: blackened brickwork, smashed-in shop fronts, buses stopped in the streets with spider-web cracks across the windscreen.’
Something visual and tragic about this waste land. Or, like the revolution from Les Mis.
What Polly Courtney does really well, is to juxtapose these heights of eloquence and excitement with the dead, flat voice; the ugly, quasi-genial media voice of the villains who interview Alesha:
‘INSIDE THE MIND OF A FERAL YOUTH, it says. That’s the headline. I don’t even know what that word means, that word feral, but I know it ain’t good’. The reporter quotes just what Alesha said – out loud – at her interview: ‘I just wanted to go out and cause trouble’. ‘We ruled the streets. It was like, up yours, to the police. That’s how we felt’.
But there is also Alesha’s parallel, surely far more stirring, internal version of events: ‘Coz finally there was a rebellion against all the things that was bad in my life, and for once it felt like we could take control, turn the tables on the feds. I got involved coz my head was spinning with crazy thoughts about JJ and what happened to him and what might of happened to him, and the more I didn’t get no reply from him, the more I felt like tearing down buildings’.
That’s why she’s not ‘opinionated’. It’s feelings, spinning. Not at all opinionated: she keeps her opinions to herself – rather painfully, to a reader, with whom she shares her innermost, and rather articulate, thoughts. She doesn’t seem to make them herself, to choose them self-confidently: the ‘revolution’ just comes.
That’s where the artifice comes into it again. Two types of artist, two faces, are shown: there is the journalist, who writes in her from-above, token, phoney ‘understanding’ way, and then there is – who? Miss Merfield is an archetype of the other, understanding artist, who listens. This becomes a sort of theme, as Miss Merfield herself was helped by her piano teacher beforehand.
But it’s not that, here: it’s the Alesha-voice herself, the voice of the novelist. The writer is, of course, the good artist. Who gives a voice to the voiceless, performing the artificial exercise that should never have been artificial in the first place (but probably will always be needed).
I absolutely love the connection this book both brings up thematically, and inhabits, itself, about the arts and social justice. By embodying, and embodying well, the voiceless. Performing the unimaginable miracle of changing inarticulacy into words, yet keeping it the same person. Never the voice of the powerful.
As an appendix, then, I want to add – precisely because of this vast strength – the artist in me shudders at the ironic title. Of the true artist adopting the words of the phoney. ‘Feral Youth’ indeed.
And it’s meant to be, I’m sure. We’re meant to splutter at the scab of a title.
Which is the only part of the book not in Alesha’s voice, at all.
Notwithstanding that, though, which is doubtless a deliberate clang of the jarring gong of injustice, it’s a brilliant read. Easy, enjoyable, in places very beautiful, gets you thinking, and, most of all, alive.